Why Japan’s Ultranationalists Hate the Olympic Truce

Photo by Emran Kassim | CC BY 2.0

“Making North Korea into an ever-present threat has helped Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his circle of ultranationalist government officials unify the nation behind their government. Recent escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang only help promote the narrative that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies are good for Japan, keeping the population focused on an external enemy.” I hereby admit that I stole most of the wording in the previous two sentences from CNN. All I had to do was exchange one group of actors for another.

Below I outline five reasons why Abe and his circle of ultranationalists hate the Olympic Truce and are looking forward to getting back to “maximum pressure” (i.e., preventing peace between North and South Korea through genocidal sanctions, threats of a second holocaust on the Korean Peninsula, etc.)

1/ Family Honor

Some of Japan’s top ultranationalists, including Japan’s Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Minister in charge of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, have ancestors who were major beneficiaries of Japan’s empire, and they also want to restore the “honor” of those ancestors, people who tortured, murdered, and exploited Koreans, among others. Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister, is the grandson of Kishi Nobusuke, an A-class war criminal who barely escaped the death penalty. Kishi was a protégé of Hideki Tojo. The relationship between these two went back to 1931 and to their colonialist exploitation of resources and people in Manchuria, including the forced labor of Koreans and Chinese, for their own sake as well as for the Empire of Japan. The slave system that Kishi established there opened the door to the military sex trafficking of women from Japan, Korea, China, and other countries.

Taro Aso, who now serves as the deputy prime minister and minister of finance, is also related to Kishi Nobusuke, has ties to the Imperial Family through his sister’s marriage to the Emperor’s cousin, and is the heir to a mining fortune that was built up to a significant extent by exploiting Korean forced laborers during the War. Aso’s brother-in-law is Suzuki Shun’ichi, also an ultranationalist and a history-denialist who is Minister in Charge of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Many Koreans, North and South, are very aware of such direct connections between today’s ultranationalists and yesterday’s ultranationalists, i.e., the ones who tortured their ancestors. The Korea historian Bruce Cumings explains tongue-in-cheek that while Pyongyang suffers from “hereditary communism” Tokyo suffers from “hereditary democracy.”

2/ Racist Denialism, Historical Revisionism

Many of the ministers in Abe’s cabinet are members of the “Nippon Kaigi” (Japan Council). These include Abe, Aso, Suzuki, the Governor of Tokyo (and former minister of defense) Yuriko Koike, the Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare and Minister of State for the Abduction Issue Katsunobu Kato, the present Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. This is a well-funded ultranationalist organization backed by a grassroots movement, whose aim is to overturn the “Tokyo Tribunal’s view of history” and delete Article 9 from Japan’s unique Constitution that promotes international peace by renouncing “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” Nippon Kaigi claims that the annexation of Korea in 1910 was legal.

Taro Aso is the same kind of open, brazen racist as Trump, inciting attacks on vulnerable minorities. He said that Hitler had the “right motives” and that “one day the Weimar constitution changed to the Nazi constitution without anyone realising it, why don’t we learn from that sort of tactic?”

Last year Koike Yuriko attacked Koreans in Japan through a type of symbolic violence. She abandoned the long-standing tradition of sending a eulogy to the annual ceremony in remembrance of the massacre of Koreans that was committed in the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. After the Earthquake, false rumors were spread throughout the city of Tokyo that Koreans were poisoning wells, and racist vigilantes murdered thousands of Koreans. Subsequently, ceremonies had been held for many decades to mourn the innocents who were murdered, but by attempting to end this tradition of recognizing the suffering of Koreans—a kind of apology and a way for people to learn from the mistakes of the past—she, too, gains power from the racists. The racists in turn gain power from the fake “threat” from North Korea.

3/ Promoting Further Remilitarization of Japan

Japan still has a peace constitution and that gets in the way of building a military machine that can intimidate other countries. At present, Japan’s defense budget is “only” slightly larger than South Korea’s, and it is “only” number 8 in the world in terms of “defense” spending. Abe hopes to make Japan’s military even more powerful and the country more belligerent, returning it to the glory days, at least in his mind, of the 1930s.

Both South Korea and Japan continually conduct regular war games (euphemistically referred to as “joint military exercises”) with the US. Abe, like Trump, wants to resume these war games as soon as possible after the Olympics. “Cope North” war games, combining the forces of Japan, the US, and Australia are presently being held in Guam, running from 14 February to 2 March. The “Iron Fist” war games of the US and Japan in Southern California, just concluded on 7 February. And some of the largest war games in the world are those of the US-South Korea “Key Resolve Foal Eagle” exercises. Last year these games involved 300,000 South Korean and 15,000 US troops, the SEAL Team six that assassinated Osama Bin Laden, B-1B and B-52 nuclear bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a nuclear submarine. They were postponed for the Olympic Truce but will probably be resumed in April, unless President Moon of South Korea cancels or postpones them again.

If South Korea is actually a sovereign state, President Moon has the right to commit to a “freeze for freeze” agreement, in which his government would shelve those truly offensive exercises in exchange for a freeze on nuclear weapons development.

One way Japan could raise its “stature” in international politics would be through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. If North Korea has them, why not Japan? Henry Kissinger recently said, “One little country in North Korea does not pose such an extreme threat…” but now, with North Korea getting away with having nukes, South Korea and Japan are also going to want them. And that is a problem, even for the first-class imperialist ideologue Kissinger.

Trump himself whet the appetites of Japan and South Korea for these offensive arms. In an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, he said, “Maybe they [Japan] would, in fact, be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.” (Author’s italics). Chris Wallace asks, “With nukes?” Trump: “Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.” Jake Tapper of CNN later confirmed this conversation. And on 26 March 2016 the New York Times reported that the then-candidate Trump was, in their words, “open to allowing Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear arsenals rather than depend on the American nuclear umbrella for their protection against North Korea and China.”

No nonnuclear power in the world is nearer to a nuclear capacity than Japan. Many analysts believe it would take Tokyo only months to develop nukes. In the ensuing chaos, it’s likely that South Korea and Taiwan would follow suit, with at least Taiwan receiving quiet help from Japan. Governor Koike, too, suggested in 2003 that it would be acceptable for her country to have nuclear weapons.

4/ Winning elections

Peace in Korea would be very bad for Japan’s ultranationalists like Abe and Aso, as the “threat” that keeps them in power would be removed. Aso himself acknowledged that the LDP won the election last November because of the perceived threat from North Korea, before he was forced to retract that slip of the tongue. The Abe administration had been reeling from a dirty deal Abe set up for a private school indoctrinating children in ultranationalism, but attention was deflected from this domestic corruption to the “threat” from the big-bad Regime, and voters chose the safety and familiarity of the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party. The land for the school had been sold for one-seventh of the actual value, so the corruption was obvious, but it was thanks to the foreign “threat” that he was able to hold onto power, unlike the South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached.

He was able to convince a lot of people that North Korean missiles aimed at Japan could carry sarin, the substance that has terrified many people ever since the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used it to kill a dozen innocent people in a Tokyo subway in 1995, in one of the worst terrorist incidents in one of the world’s safest countries. In addition, Japan’s “J-Alert” warning system now advises millions of people in northern Japan to seek shelter whenever North Korea tests a missile that might approach Japan—annoying for those of us who live in Japan but a godsend and free propaganda for ultranationalists like Abe.

5/ Shh… Don’t tell anyone that another world is possible

Last but not least, there is a considerable threat of independent development in Northeast Asia, a concern for Washington but also for Tokyo, which depends on the Washington system. China has developed largely outside of the US-managed global system, North Korea has developed almost completely outside of it, and now President Moon is advancing a whole new vision for his economy, one that would make South Korea less dependent on the US. This new vision is referred to with the terms “New Southern Policy” and “New Northern Policy.” The former would have South Korea deepening trading relationships with Indonesia, a state that has good relations with North Korea, while the latter would open up more trade with Russia and China, and also North Korea. For example, one plan is for new infrastructure to link South Korea to Russia via North Korean territory, in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. There are also discussions underway aiming to integrate South Korea’s economy more with its other neighbors China, Japan, and Mongolia. At the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on 7 September 2017, Moon described the Moon-Putin Plan as “nine bridges of cooperation”: gas, railroads, ports, electricity, a northern sea route, shipbuilding, jobs, agriculture, and fisheries.

The economic policies of past or present communist states China, North Korea, and Russia as well as the above East Asian economic integration envisioned by Moon could severely limit the realization of the Open Door Policy, i.e., the material fantasy of America’s unproductive class, whose greed and exclusivity can be captured by the Occupy Movement’s expression “the one percent.” Paul Atwood explains that although not many politicians use the term “Open Door Policy” these days, it still “remains the bedrock guiding strategy of American foreign policy writ large. Applicable to the entire planet the policy was enunciated specifically about the ‘great China market’ (actually greater East Asia).”

Atwood defines it as the notion that “American finance and corporations should have untrammeled right of entry into the marketplaces of all nations and territories and access to their resources and cheaper labor power on American terms, sometimes diplomatically, often by armed violence.”

The independent economic development of the states of Northeast Asia would not hurt working Americans, but it could prevent US corporations from exploiting the workers and natural resources of a large portion of East Asia, an area of the world with immense wealth-generating potential. It would also benefit the economy of Russia, a state that competes with the US and that is asserting its claims more and more.

From the perspective of Washington elites, we have not yet won the Korean War. North Korea cannot be seen to be getting away with independent development and becoming a high-status nuclear power. It sets a bad precedent, i.e., the “threat” of other states following in its footsteps, developing full-scale industrialization and independence. This is something that the “Don” of the Bully State in the neighborhood absolutely will not allow. North Korea has already successfully developed outside the US-managed global system, with the past help of the People’s Republic of China and the former USSR, when they were “communist” states. (The term “communist” is often an epithet pinned on states that aim for independent development). And North Korea has been independent of the US, with markets that are not open to American companies, for 70 years now. It continues to be a thorn in the side of Washington. Like the mafia Don, the US Don needs “credibility,” but North Korea’s very existence undermines that.

The above five reasons help explain why in the world Abe wanted to be shoulder to shoulder with Vice President Mike Pence, helping him “rain” on the peace parade in Korea. Hyun Lee, the managing editor of Zoom In Korea, points out in a recent article that Abe’s antics during the winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have included pretending to worry about an attack from North Korea by demanding that a parking lot be inspected; pressing his demand once more for a resumption of US-South Korea joint “exercises” in spite of the fruitful-yet-fragile Olympic Truce; and demanding yet once again that the “comfort women” statues, installed by non-governmental entities in order to educate people about military sex trafficking, be removed. (http://www.zoominkorea.org/from-pyeongchang-to-lasting-peace/)

Getting back to the war games

South Korea is President Moon’s country, not Trump’s. But as some observers have pointed out, Seoul is not in the driver’s seat. Seoul “has no choice but to serve as a mediator” between Washington and the North Korean government even if South Korea is “not in the driver’s seat,” according to Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, who added that “this is not a simple question.”

“We need to start thinking that South and North Korea can make the first move to bring about North Korea-US talks,” said Kim Yeon-cheol, a professor at Inje University.

And the “most important thing,” according to Lee Jae-joung, superintendent of the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education is that “South and North are at the center of peace on the Korean Peninsula.” He calls the present situation a “golden opportunity for the Korean Peninsula.”

Yes, this moment is truly golden. And if a nuclear war or any kind of war is underway on the Korean Peninsula in 2019, the Pyeongchang Olympics of 2018 will appear in hindsight even more golden, a lost opportunity for Koreans first and foremost, but also for Japanese and Americans, possibly even Russians, Chinese, and other people from UN Command states, such as Australians, who could once again be drawn into the fighting. But with fifteen US military bases on South Korean soil, Moon’s choices may be limited. In fact, that is precisely the reason why Washington has bases there. The purpose is to “defend our allies but also to limit their choices—a light hold on the jugular,”—shocking words from Cumings, but an accurate analysis of the situation in which South Korea finds itself. It is said that deterring an attack from the North is the reason for the bases in South Korea, but South Korea’s military is strong enough already. They do not need us.

So can Moon take back his own country? August 15th of this year will mark 70 years since Korea was liberated from domination by the Empire of Japan, but during almost every one of those years South Korea has been a pseudo-colony of the US, like postwar Japan. Koreans in the South still live under foreign domination. A North-South “double freeze” (i.e., a nuclear freeze in the North and a freeze on war games in the South) is still on the table. If Moon shelved the exercises, the US would have no choice but to cooperate. Surely Washington would punish Seoul for such insurrection, but all of us—South Koreans, Japanese, and others—must consider what is at stake, and with the rise of Beijing, the global order may be changing anyway. Less hegemony and more equity among states in Northeast Asia is certainly think-able.

South Korea and Japan are both US sidekicks or “client states,” so the three states move in tandem usually. Seoul’s submission to Washington is such that they have agreed to cede control of their military to the US in the case of a war. In other words, one of the most powerful militaries in the world would be handed over to the generals of a foreign power. During the last war on the Korean Peninsula, that foreign power behaved badly, to say the least.

At Washington’s bidding, Seoul sent troops to fight on the American side during the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, so it has a history of loyal devotion. The US has also been South Korea’s main trading partner for most of a century and that has been an important source of leverage, “limiting” their choices.

Finally, the militaries of the US, South Korea, and Japan act almost like one giant, unified military force, pushing provocative and hostile intimidation of North Korea. Of the three states, South Korea has the most to lose by war and may have the most vigorous democratic movements, so naturally it is the most open to dialogue with the North, but it is hampered by Washington’s “light hold on the jugular.”

Americans should now recall the antiwar protests before our country invaded Iraq, or other past glories of the US antiwar movement, such as the vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War. Let’s do it again. Let’s hamper Washington’s belligerence by throwing a net on its movements, even demanding an extension of the Olympic Truce. Our lives depend on it.


Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History (Modern Library, 2010) and North Korea: Another Country (The New Press, 2003).

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.